In the end, it took tens of thousands of soldiers and police, with military helicopters circling low in support, to corner and finally kill the brothers behind the Charlie Hebdo attacks. There was enough firepower on display in this normally sleepy town northeast of Paris to wage a small war.

And that’s exactly what the bursts of gunfire echoing through this tiny commuter town represented: the latest battle in a small, uneven and horrible war. It’s a conflict linked to the larger ones in the Middle East, of course, but on the ground it’s a fight between Western states based on the concept of openness, and and tiny groups of people, sometimes just individuals, who exploit that very system to do grievous harm.

The same questions that came fast following last year’s “lone wolf” attacks in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., and on Parliament Hill are now echoing through Paris, Berlin and other Western capitals: How far should a state go in monitoring those it suspects of plotting attacks, when they have yet to commit a crime? What more can be done to prevent the next such attack, without infringing on some of the most basic principles of democracy?

More draconian measures are likely what’s ahead, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper declaring this week that “the international jihadist movement has declared war” and announcing the government would introduce unspecified “additional measures” to give more power to Canada’s security agencies. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, said it would “doubtless be essential to take new measures” to boost security in the wake of this week’s attacks. And Britain’s domestic security chief, Andrew Parker, has warned that MI5 and its allies need broad surveillance powers. “We all value our privacy – and none of us want it intruded upon improperly or unnecessarily,” he said. “But I don’t want a situation where that privacy is so absolute and sacrosanct that terrorists and others who mean us harm can confidently operate from behind those walls without fear of detection.

France already had some of Europe’s toughest anti-terrorism measures in place, yet its security services failed dramatically this week when confronted by a plot hatched between two brothers in the confines of their shared apartment on the outskirts of Paris. The hard truth is there’s often little a Western democracy – even one such as France that has been confronting radical Islamist attacks for decades – can do to stop such a small cell from carrying out its plan until it is already unfolding.

Even as gunfire echoed through Dammartin-en-Goële and in the eastern fringe of Paris where a second, linked shootout took place, experts here were bemoaning the security services’ heavy focus on surveillance powers, and the seeming absence of old-fashioned good relations between police and the Muslim communities in the suburbs, or banlieues, which surround the French capital. While “counter-terrorism” will be the talk of the days ahead, stepped up efforts to integrate and deradicalize young Muslims must follow.

“These people, they don’t drop from the sky,” said Daniel Koehler, an expert on deradicalization in Berlin who has spent years counselling families how to dissuade relatives from the path of extremism. “Even if they are lone actors, they leave tracks, they interact with other people.”

A reconstruction of the lives of Saïd and Chérif Kouachi makes it clear, in hindsight, that better co-operation – and trust – between police and the Muslim community in the middle-class Paris suburb of Gennevilliers would have gone further in revealing what the brothers were planning than any additional surveillance measures.

The brothers were known locally for their overt displays of religiosity, as well as their loud opposition to the French state. Interviews conducted in Gennevilliers this week by The Globe and Mail revealed that least some of their neighbours had been aware as long as two months ago that the Kouachi brothers (and another man and woman who shared an apartment with them) were stockpiling weapons.

Those anecdotes – had they been passed to police – make a compelling case for intervention when combined with other, publicly known facts about the two brothers. Chérif was convicted on terrorism charges in 2008, and both brothers were later named in court in relation to a 2010 plot to break the mastermind of the deadly 1995 Paris metro bombings out of jail.

U.S. intelligence services put both brothers on a no-fly list years ago, believing they were affiliated with al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, a claim 32-year-old Chérif confirmed in an interview with France’s BFMTV before his death. The British government confirmed Friday that it also had the Kouachis on a list of those not to be admitted into Britain.

But despite all the red flags that are visible now, the Kouachis’ neighbours say police only visited their apartment on Rue Basly – arresting a woman believed to be the wife of 34-year-old Saïd Kouachi – after the brothers were implicated in Wednesday’s deadly attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper that drew the ire of many Muslims by printing caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. Even then, the authorities didn’t ask neighbours what they heard and saw. Twenty-four hours after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, police hadn’t yet visited the Grand Mosque of Gennevilliers to ask what local Muslims knew about the Kouachi brothers and their potential associates.

Twelve people were killed in the Charlie Hebdo attack. Eight more would be dead by the end of Friday, including the two brothers and an ally – 32-year-old Amedy Coulibaly – who claimed to have shot and killed a policewoman in south Paris on Thursday before shooting his way into a kosher deli on the eastern edge of the capital Friday in an attempt to aid the surrounded Kouachis. Police said he killed four hostages, and was then killed when French special forces moved in almost simultaneously with the shootout in Dammartin-en-Goële.

The death toll, and the outrage among media and police at seeing their colleagues killed, begs a policy response from governments in France and elsewhere. But given that the Kouachis’ target was as much the French concept of liberty as the cartoonists they murdered, an over-the-top crackdown on those who share their point of view would be as inappropriate as it would almost certainly be counterproductive.

“The question is whether European societies would like to be free, and live more dangerously because they can’t arrest everyone, or whether they want less freedom and more security,” said Farhad Khosrokhavar, an expert on radical Islam at Paris’s School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences. “In a democracy, you can’t just jail someone on simple suspicion. You need more than that.”

That’s the bitter irony: The democratic system that Saïd and Chérif Kouachi loathed so much – the two brothers once walked out of the Gennevilliers mosque when the imam called on Muslims to vote in an upcoming election – provided them the space to plan and prepare their murderous attack on it. If they were living in a dictatorship such as Algeria, where their parents were born, the Kouachis could have been jailed for a very long time based on the circumstantial evidence against them.

Prof. Khosrokhavar said the kind of attack carried out on the offices of Charlie Hebdo – like the attacks in Canada last year, and the December siege at a café in Sydney, Australia – was almost impossible to prevent in a democracy. Police can monitor phone and Internet communications between larger groups of people, he said, but there’s little they can do to counteract a lone gunman, or two brothers who plan an attack from inside their tiny apartment in the Paris suburbs.

“In the short term, there is no possible response other than repression,” Prof. Khosrokhovar said. “There is no way other than subjugating those who are trying to kill others in the name of religion. Afterward, dialogue is necessary.”

The problem is most serious in France, which has seen an estimated 1,000 of its citizens travel to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State. But the attack in Paris is also likely to accelerate a bid to deepen co-operation among European countires to track the travel of would-be jihadis.

Such data sharing is “very important, especially after the tragic attack in Paris,” European Council President Donald Tusk said on Friday, adding that the European Union “cannot do everything, but can concentrate on strengthening security.” A proposal to create a regional passenger record system with years of historical data was blocked by members of the European parliament on civil liberties grounds in 2013.

A critical step will be dissecting how the Kouachi brothers managed to plan and carry out their attack despite all the red flags that might have drawn attention to them. It remains unclear whether the information that put the dead suspects on U.S. and British watch lists was shared with French police or intelligence services, and what French authorities did with the information available to them.

One neighbour in Gennevilliers said her husband had been suspicious enough of the brothers’ behaviour that he broke into the Kouachis’ apartment and discovered a cache of weapons. The neighbour – who was threatened into silence by the Kouachis – never told police.

“That is an absolute smoking gun piece of intelligence,” said Paul Gill, a terrorism researcher at University College London. “If that had been passed up the chain of command, a whole unit would have been ontop of that apartment.”

Research published last year by Mr. Gill and two others examined 119 cases of “lone-actor terrorists” and found that in 64 per cent of the cases, family and friends were aware of the individual’s intentions before they acted on them.

Western intelligence services are geared toward intercepting communications between people plotting attacks, said Mr. Gill. That is a powerful tool, but so is collecting information from community members, relatives and everyone from teachers to social workers, he said. He said there were numerous examples of cases where lone-wolf attackers were foiled by their roommates, relatives, or members of their mosque.

The challenge for France now would be building such channels to the Muslim community at a time of unprecedented fear and suspicion. France already employs some of the harshest counter-terrorism tactics of any country in Europe, experts say. It has deported suspected extremists, shut down mosques or other institutions that served as hubs for radicalization, and conducted large-scale arrests.

Before 2012, France experienced 16 years without a jihadis attack, said Frank Foley, a lecturer at King’s College London whose recent book compared the French and British approaches to counter-terrorism. The attacks in Paris show that “the country in Europe that has made perhaps the toughest response to terrorism is not immune from it,” he said.

France’s government and security services will have the leeway to respond to the violence as they see fit, he added. “There is a consensus in French society which puts the security of the republic first,” he said.

There is no silver bullet, he added. European authorities already gather considerable counter-terrorism intelligence and have extensive powers to arrest people preparing for violent acts. “I caution against thinking that this problem is going to be stamped out,” said Mr. Foley. “It can’t be stamped out.”

Other security experts agree. “We will have to live with it,” said Karl-Heinz Kamp of the German government’s Federal Academy for Security Policy in Berlin. An estimated 3,000 Europeans have left to fight in Syria or Iraq, he noted. “Ninety per cent of them will return completely traumatized,” he said, but a small minority will have the will and skills to commit violence. “We are highly vulnerable entities as modern states.”

Back in Dammartin-en-Goële, Anna Cristina was one of the few local residents who dared venture outside during the tense hours-long standoff that preceded the bloody firefight.

Despite the randomly chosen location for the Kouachi brothers’ final stand – a little-known town of just 8,000 people that the brothers drove into with French security forces in hot pursuit – the 50-year-old caregiver said she wasn’t surprised to see helicopters and heavily armed police outside her front door.

“I think this can happen anywhere now,” she said.

Published Friday, Jan. 09 2015, 7:38 PM EST
Last updated Saturday, Jan. 10 2015, 2:41 PM EST